How to Teach Your Tot About Table Manners

Perfecting the recipe for happier meals is a little easier with these simple tips to calm your restless toddler at meal time.

Illustration by Agnieszka Szatkowska

There were only a couple of bites of dinner left when Heather Lochner says her then two-year-old daughter, Aidan, dug in her heels and refused to finish. “I was very strict at meals,” Lochner says, and Aidan and her older brother Lucas were expected to sit until they finished what was on their plates. This time the rules meant that Aidan missed out on a concert at the park. “She went ballistic,” and it took her an hour to finish dinner, Lochner recalls. “That was the tipping point. We realized we needed to change tactics—for us and her.”

Parents trying to teach table manners are often confounded by toddlers who can’t sit still and who would rather play than eat, but Vancouver parenting expert Kathy Lynn says the key is to plan shorter mealtimes to meet a child’s developmental needs. “Most toddlers only eat one good meal a day, and it’s rarely dinner.”

Learning to Sit Still
Sitting in a high chair or at the table for the duration of a meal is tough for most toddlers, so Lynn suggests bringing them to their seat only after their food is cut and ready to eat. “Then relax and pay attention to them. When they are done, allow them to play close by.” As the child ages, parents can gradually increase the time kids are expected to sit at the table by offering choices, encouraging conversation and asking questions. Lochner says she added family what-we-did-today time to mealtimes, helping to make her redesigned dinners a more relaxed event.

Grasping Basic Manners
Learning manners, like sitting still, is a process. “Parents have the right to insist on a few basic rules,” says parenting coach Barbara Desmarais, co-author of Food Fight: Make Mealtime Creatively Go from Frantic to Fun! (self-published). “But they still have to be taught.” Saying “Excuse me,” “Please” and “Thank you” or using utensils all take time to learn, and most kids won’t consistently remember until they are at least preschool age.

Vancouver parent Kelly Maxwell says the table manners that she modelled when her kids Ayla and James (now six and nine) were small helped turn them into excellent dinner companions. “But our goal then was to enjoy their company while showing them what we do when we share meals,” she adds.

Expecting Typical Behaviours
Wanting to sit with Mommy, throwing food and grabbing food from other plates is pretty standard conduct for toddlers. Maxwell says Ayla was a committed lap-sitter: “She was restless and wanted to be close.” Desmarais says it’s fine for kids to need extra TLC, but if parents want their lap back, they can suggest a pre- or post-meal cuddle instead. When it comes to throwing food, Desmarais again suggests a calm reaction with a reminder. “But rather than say ‘Stop throwing your food!’ say ‘Food stays on the plate.’” She also recommends placing a mat under the chair for easy cleanup, serving small amounts and not picking up the food and giving it back. “That can just encourage them to throw more.”

Toddlers and Restaurants
When eating out with your little one, it is best to be prepared to prevent any meltdowns, notes Lynn. “Take them for a walk while waiting for the food to arrive, bring some small toys they can play with, don’t expect to dawdle after dinner, choose a restaurant that is family-friendly and pay attention to them during the meal.”

But don’t be surprised if your child is not keen to sit still. “Children don’t do well in restaurants until they get older—school-aged, that is,” says Desmarais. If you’re in a restaurant with your toddler and things are going badly, cut it short, she suggests. “You don’t want to make things unpleasant for not only you but the other guests at the restaurant. There is plenty of time for children to learn how to behave appropriately in a restaurant. When they are very young is not the time.”

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